Map of Europe in 1815.

The European Union is under deep strain

The European Union is under deep strain. This has been clear for some time. It’s just that the pressure keeps mounting with each new tension.

There is pressure from competing political blocs of potent ultra-nationalists and liberals, from anti-Unionists (Brexit), from national separatists (Catalonia, Scotland, Flanders), and from regional economic differences (Greece vs. Germany). These tensions are among the best known of the lot, but there are more yet. The problem, however, is profound, and the issues listed are expressions of a set of European and international currents.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, really. The Union was never free of contradictions. It’s a political project with contending features. Order is imposed upon it, by external forces and internal members. At the same time, forces and currents from within and without are drawing the EU in new directions.

The crises that espouse tension include the long-term decline in profits in capitalist economies increasingly driving societies to conflict and inequality, the decline of US hegemony over both world and European politics, and the continuation of imperialist competition between states throughout the world as well as between the EU’s member states.

The EU gives form to internal competition between members, once inarguably arbitrated by the distant hand of US interest. It’s also the vehicle from which its core countries can project power beyond and upon the rest of the world. Former French cabinet minister Michel Sapin succinctly spoke to the last point: “the strength of our community of fate must also find expression in our ability to influence what happens around us”.

In a confidential 1990 discussion between then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and French president, François Mitterrand, the two leaders coordinated against a common opponent: a Germany poised for reunification. An internal memo of the meeting from 10 Downing Street, the seat of the UK’s ruling government, reads like the sort of conspiracy that could be expected between rivals prior to the existence of the European Community.

The secret letter stated that the change in the balance of power within the European Economic Community following Soviet Union retreat had as effect “to turn [Germans] once again into the ‘bad’ Germans they used to be. They were behaving with a certain brutality and concentrating on reunification to the exclusion of everything else. It was difficult to maintain good relations with them in this sort of mood. Of course the Germans had the right to self-determination. But they did not have the right to upset the political realities of Europe.” [Emphasis mine]

France and the UK would have liked to prevent unification but that was not possible, so they wished to reduce its impact and delay it as long as possible. The so-called “political realities of Europe” is euphemism for the balance of forces between competing great European powers.

The French president claimed that he met with West German leaders, Chancellor Helmut Kohl among them, and had told them the following:

He had said to them that no doubt Germany could if it wished achieve reunification, bring Austria into the European Community and even regain other territories which it had lost as a result of the war. They might make even more ground than had Hitler. But they would have to bear in mind the implications. He would take a bet that in such circumstances the Soviet Union would send an envoy to London to propose a Re-insurance Treaty and the United Kingdom would agree. The envoy would go on to Paris with the same proposal and France would agree. And then we would all be back in 1913. He was not asking the Germans to give up the idea of reunification. But they must understand that the consequences of reunification would not just stop at the borders of Germany. The attitude of Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and France in the discussions at the Strasbourg European Council should have been a warning to the Germans. [Emphasis mine]

The same document adds that:

President Mitterrand said that he shared the Prime Minister’s concerns about the Germans’ so-called mission in central Europe. The Germans seemed determined to use their influence to dominate Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. That left only Rumania and Bulgaria for the rest of us. The Poles would never come to like the Germans while the Oder-Neisse Line remained in question. Nor would the others want to be under Germany’s exclusive influence. But they would need German aid and investment. The Prime Minister said that we should not just accept the Germans had a particular hold over the countries of Eastern Europe but do everything possible to expand our own links. [Emphasis mine]

1913 is the time of intensifying international tensions leading up to that European war called World War I. The Reinsurance Treaty was a 19th century secret treaty intended to keep Europe’s balance of power by means of war. In that treaty, Germany and Russia agreed to their respective zones of influence and promised to remain neutral if one of them attacked another great power as long as it was according to the conditions that maintained the general balance. The British document states that Mitterrand was ready to accept that the Soviet Union could wage war against Germany to keep its power in check, and that the UK should enter into a similar treaty with the USSR. Obviously, this threat of war didn’t prevent West Germany from encompassing the Eastern part, and the Soviet Union collapsed only a year after the meeting between the leaders of France and the UK.

Notice that the UK and France complain that they stand to lose in contrast to a rising Germany. They’re dividing Europe among themselves, claiming one country or another as their subsidiary. France and the UK would simply have liked to maintain a greater share for themselves. It doesn’t seem appropriate to them that Germany could have tributaries in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, while they would be left with the likes of Romania and Bulgaria.

In some ways, the European Union is a successor to the systems previously used to coordinate and balance competition between the great powers and manage peripheral territories as zones of influence. What was once embodied in the confederation of electoral princes in the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), or informally accorded via the 19th century Concert of Europe, is transposed as today’s Union. Like the HRE, not all of Europe is included in the EU, and it is as much a means of internally managing concentrations of power in the body of an alliance system that also pits itself against external rivals near and far. Russia is the most notable European power excluded, so much so that it’s now often called a ‘Eurasian’ country rather than a European one.

Europe’s sovereign members once bore the family names of dynastic enterprises: the Habsburgs, the Bourbons, the Romanovs, the Hohenzollern, the Tudors, and so on. These complex family run enterprises were crowned by monarchs who commanded possessions in the form of territorries and peoples. The feudal system was then replaced by capitalist economic and social relations governed by nation-state enterprises. For example, what was once feudally organised as the changing possessions (in land and people) belonging to the Bourbons is now orchestrated by the nation-state of France.

The European Union is layered with unequal vestments of power. There is the core: Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and the Benelux countries. There is the core of the core: Germany and France. And there is Europe’s ‘leader’ Germany.

The EU structures internal conflict, manages the geographic concentrations of wealth between competing states, and confederates the strength of its components under the influence of its dominant leaders. This is to say that great power rivalry persists within the EU in an era that sees the emergence of a new world order. Much is up for grabs, and the core countries of the EU can gain much or lose tremendously in the push and pull. It’s no wonder that the Union is unstable.

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